Seriously spiritually ‘Lost’

I can’t express my love for Lost enough. For a while, I was almost convinced The Onion produced the clip “Final Season Of ‘Lost’ Promises To Make Fans More Annoying Than” about me.

In fact, I’m still stinging from tmatt’s description of his friends who have “consumed a bit too much Kool-Aid.” I’m not alone, though. About 10-15 Christianity Today International employees meet over lunch each week to discuss theories. What is the smoke monster? Why doesn’t Richard Alpert ever age? Is shirtless Sawyer necessary? These are the probing questions that keep us awake at night. For those who aren’t caught up, there are no spoilers in this post.

By now, most of you should know the show’s premise. A plane crashes on a mysterious island in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The characters were originally just trying to survive as their stories were told through flashbacks. Then their purpose evolved into some larger meaning as a character named Jacob supposedly brought them to the island. Talk to me after Sunday’s finale, and I may be disgusted with the show if it’s all Hurley’s dream.

Because theories abound, it’s easy to read into the show and look for religious references. For example, did Sayid look like Jesus when he came out of the water in cross-like fashion? Tim Townsend explored some of the religious-related theories in his weekly column on Saturday. Here’s a teaser for the rest of the column:

Is it a show about a modern-day shipwreck, featuring misfit castaways trying to survive increasingly bizarre circumstances on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean?

Or is the island just a metaphor? Is it really a show about faith, redemption, evil, predestination, love, suffering, free will and human understanding of the supernatural?

Either way, when “Lost” ends in just over a week, what will remain is the debate — conducted in offices, gyms, coffee shops, elevators, taxis and especially on thousands of blogs across the country–about the religious themes sprinkled throughout the series’ six seasons.

All of this brings me to an interview The New York Times did with the show’s executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. That’s a lot of pressure to put on interviewer Lorne Manly because fans want to know a lot of answers to a lot of questions. I was pleasantly surprised to see religion asked about up front and center.

Q. Your show traffics in a lot of big themes — fate versus free will, good versus evil, faith versus reason, how often Sawyer should be shirtless. Ultimately, what were the most important themes for you in this series?

DAMON LINDELOF: If there’s one word that we keep coming back to, it’s redemption. It is that idea of everybody has something to be redeemed for and the idea that that redemption doesn’t necessarily come from anywhere else other than internally. But in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community. So the redemption theme started to kind of connect into “live together, die alone,” which is that these people were all lone wolves who were complete strangers on an aircraft, even the ones who were flying together like Sun and Jin. Then let’s bring them together and through their experiences together allow themselves to be redeemed. When the show is firing on all pistons, that’s the kind of storytelling that we’re doing.

I think we’ve always said that the characters of “Lost” are deeply flawed, but when you look at their flashback stories, they’re all victims. Kate was a victim before she killed her stepfather. Sawyer’s parents killed themselves as he was hiding under the bed. Jack’s dad was a drunk who berated him as a child. Sayid was manipulated by the American government into torturing somebody else. John Locke had his kidney stolen. This idea of saying this bad thing happened to me and I’m a victim and it created some bad behavior and now I’m going to take responsibility for that and allow myself to be redeemed by community with other people, that seems to be the theme that we keep coming back to.

Later in the interview Lindelof said that the characters’ names come from a mix of their favorite stories, including “Bible stories from Sunday school.” Jacob and Esau anyone? The interviewer asks the producers about the seasonal shift.

Q. Last season you guys doubled down on the science fiction with the time travel, and this year you introduced a much more religious overview. What drove that shift?

CUSE: We view each season of the show like a book in a series, and so last year was the time travel book, and that story had a beginning, middle and end. This season is significantly spiritual. We felt the mission of the final season of the show was to bring the show full circle. And that if we were going to be discussing what was really important to us, which was how do these characters’ journeys conclude, that journey is a spiritual journey.

I wish there were time for more follow-ups, because “spiritual journey” seems so vague. Still, I’m glad the interviewer found time to ask about the religious themes. What questions would you have asked the show’s writers? In tmatt fashion, please express your opinion on the following: Which question do you most want answered?

(a) Which side is good and which is evil?

(b) Who will replace Jacob?

(c) Is there fate or free will on the island?

(d) When and what created/formed the island?

(d) What’s with the sideways time line?

(e) Will Juliet and Sawyer get a coffee date?

(f) Something else

In other words, if you were the Times interviewer, what question would you find most important?

Update: Melissa Nann Burke has an excerpt from Entertainment Weekly about the show’s producers, who describe themselves as “men of faith,” “intensely spiritual people, and that ‘Lost’ is ultimately a deeply spiritual show.” She also pointed me to this fascinating feature at USA Today, including a video interview with the producers.

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Little bitty flock of 1.6 million: The sequel

The other day, I made a big deal (in a negative way) out of how a single sentence in a Florida newspaper story described Churches of Christ, the fellowship to which I belong. If you missed that post, please go back and read it. Otherwise, this sequel won’t make sense (maybe it still won’t, but familiarity with the previous discourse might help improve the odds).

OK … everybody back now?

It turns out that the writer of the chastised story is a GetReligion reader — Cary McMullen, religion editor of The Ledger of Lakeland, Fla. — and he took time to reply to my concerns. When I asked him if it would all right for me to share his response, Cary said that would be fine:

I think it can only help to further the conversation about religion coverage and how it actually works in the newsroom.

(Now, aren’t you wishing I had been a little nicer in the original post? Smile.)

Here is what Cary had to say about my criticism:

I thought I might pitch in with what happened with that one sentence that seems to have caused such consternation. Like a lot of religion reporters these days, I have been pressed into service on other beats. All reporters in my newsroom are required to take a shift on the “cop beat” occasionally, and it just so happens I was on duty on that beat on May 7 when we were notified of the arrest of a part-time worker at a local Church of Christ.

As Bobby noted, most of the story was straightforward reporting (although I’ll point out that I refuse to use summary attribution the way some cops reporters do, basically just narrating the arrest affadavit with a preface of “Here’s what happened according to police”). Most reporters would have left it at that, but because I felt most readers wouldn’t know the first thing about the Churches of Christ, I decided to throw in a little context.

I actually did check a somewhat outdated version of the trusty Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches for statistics, but as tmatt points out, you can take those with a grain of salt. So was the description of the Churches of Christ a “value judgment”? Well, of course, “small” could be seen as pejorative, but in this county, there are about 20 Churches of Christ, as compared to about 150 Southern Baptist congregations, and only a few to my knowledge have more than a couple of hundred adherents. The largest Southern Baptist church has about 8,000. I could go on with comparisons to other denominations (or “fellowships” — sorry, Bobby), but you get the point.

As to “theologically conservative,” tmatt is basically correct that I was aiming for a concise way of referring to a group in the evangelical (I deny “or worse”) tradition. I agree in retrospect that “theologically conservative” is vague, but is “evangelical” any more precise? And if you want a value judgment, ask the average reader his/her reaction to “evangelical.”

I did not have the luxury of an additional 10 column inches to describe the Reconstructionist history of the Churches of Christ, and in an story about an accused child molester, that was not the place for it.

All this may not get me off Bobby Ross’ complaint list. I can easily see someone out there in GR land saying as The Ledger’s religion editor I should have known better. But this was not a case either of tmatt’s classic (and correct, in my view) portrayal of a journalist not getting religion because of 1) ignorance or 2) prejudice.

In our follow-up conversation, he added:

By the way, I didn’t say this in the original message, but any tradition that does not use musical instruments in worship because they believe it does not conform to the model of the church in the New Testament has got to be “conservative” in the classic sense of the word. You can tack that on in the post, if you like.

There you go. That’s the writer’s perspective, and I think it’s helpful. Except for the reference to Reconstructionist history (I’d love to see how those 10 column inches would read!), I at least understand what Cary was thinking when he wrote the story.

In some ways, it would be helpful for journalists such as Cary to consult The Associated Press Stylebook when writing about Churches of Christ. Unfortunately, the stylebook entry itself leaves much to desired. The entry on Churches of Christ:

Approximately 18,000 independent congregations with a total U.S. membership of more than 2 million cooperate under this name. They sponsor numerous education activities, primarily radio and television programs.

Each local church is autonomous and operates under a governing board of elders. The minister is an evangelist, addressed by members as Brother. The ministers do not use clergy titles. Do not precede their names by a title.

The churches do not regard themselves as a denomination. Rather, they stress a nondenominational effort to preach what they consider basic Bible teachings. The churches also teach that baptism is an essential part of the salvation process.

The last of those three paragraphs nails it. But since GetReligion is deeply concerned about journalistic accuracy, I’ll share my problems with the first two paragraphs:

The numbers: I don’t know where they’re coming from. Since we’re dealing with autonomous congregations, there’s no official statistic. But the most recent comprehensive survey of a cappella Churches of Christ counted 12,629 congregations with 1,578,281 adherents in the U.S.

Perhaps AP also intends to include instrumental Christian Churches and Churches of Christ — a separate branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement that does not have a stylebook entry — in the figures. But that would bring the number of congregations closer to 19,000. And according to the yearbook figures cited in my previous post, the instrumental churches have 1.1 million members in the U.S. Added to the 1.6 million in the non-instrumental fellowship, that would take the total to about 2.7 million. The third branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement — the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — does have its own stylebook entry.

The radio and TV reference: There are a number of radio and TV ministries supported by Churches of Christ. But they are evangelistic in nature, not educational, and they are probably less prominent in the fellowship than Christian universities, camps, publications and youth leadership training events that help tie together autonomous churches.

The governing board of elders: Each local church is autonomous, but many small congregations do not have elders. Churches of Christ believe that elders must be mature Christians who fit biblical qualifications to shepherd a congregation. In cases where churches have not appointed elders, the men of the congregation typically take charge of handling business matters and organizing worship. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that most local churches operate under a board of elders. I would strike the term “governing.”

Evangelists and brothers: Again, the description is not totally accurate. In some churches, the minister would be referred to as an evangelist. But in more cases, he would simply be called the minister or the pulpit minister. Evangelist is not a universal term in our fellowship, although it certainly wouldn’t offend anybody.

The minister might well be addressed as “brother Smith” (with a lowercase “b”), but so might “brother Jones,” the ordinary member on the back pew. “Brother” is not a ministerial title; it’s a way to describe a Christian brother (as “sister” is for female members).

In predominantly black Churches of Christ, the use of “brother” and “sister” before members’ last names remains prevalent. In white churches, I’d say it’s more common to hear the minister referred to as “Bill” or “Larry” or whatever his name is. It is true that Church of Christ ministers, as a general rule, do not use clergy titles such as “the Rev.” “Pastor” is seen as a synonym for the specific, biblically ordained role of elder or shepherd and would not be be used, in most cases, to refer to the preacher.

Confused yet? We are not the easiest group in the world to understand. But then, as GetReligion readers know, we are far from alone in that respect.

In my time as an Associated Press religion writer, I wrote a few stories about Churches of Christ. Here is how I summarized them in a 2004 profile of Max Lucado:

Churches of Christ are autonomous congregations with no central headquarters and an estimated 1.3 million members nationwide, according to “Churches of Christ in the United States: 2003″ by researcher Mac Lynn, former Bible department chairman at Church of Christ-affiliated Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

Most Churches of Christ teach that baptism by immersion is an integral part of salvation — and the vast majority believe the Bible prohibits instrumental music in worship services, allowing only acappella singing.

You’ll note that I used a member figure. The 1.6 million number includes total adherents (such as unbaptized children).

Here’s my challenge for GetReligion readers — help me rewrite the AP style guideline on Churches of Christ. Leave your suggestions in the comments, and at some point, I’ll weigh in with mine (after borrowing your ideas!).

And, Cary, thank you again for your willingness to join this conversation.

Video: “Our God, He Is Alive” has been called, only half-jokingly, the national anthem of Churches of Christ. Mention 728B, and most older members know exactly which hymn you’re talking about.

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‘Long gone,’ but not soon forgotten

To those who love baseball, it is more than a game. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called it “the faith of 50 million people,” as Daniel Burke noted in a recent Religion News Service feature:

It follows a seasonal calendar — begun this year on Easter Sunday — and builds towards a crowning moment. Its players perform priestly rituals, its history abounds with tales of mythic heroes, and its fans study and argue arcana with the intensity of Talmudic scholars.

Sadly, baseball has lost one of its true saints: Ernie Harwell, the longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers.

Despite his love of the game, Harwell put his faith not in baseball, but in Jesus Christ. In his final months, Harwell, 92, made no secret of his strong Christian faith and his belief that God had a better home waiting for him. In an October 2009 video interview with Mitch Albom that accompanies this post, Harwell talked about his spring-training conversion at a 1961 Billy Graham Easter crusade in Bartow, Fla.:

“That’s what made the big change. I surrendered my life completely, and now whatever he (God) wants suits me fine. … It’s a great blessing that he has given to me that in my final days, I can really know where I’m going, whose arms I’m going to end up in and what a great, great thing heaven will be.”

As you’d expect, both Detroit newspapers devoted extensive space Wednesday to Harwell’s death, with plenty of colorful baseball anecdotes and warm personal tributes.

But how’d they fare on the faith angle?

Well, the Detroit Free Press didn’t exactly strike out. But the big part of the bat came nowhere close to the ball, either. Let’s call it a weak infield fly.

Up high in its nearly 3,900-word main obituary, the Free Press references Harwell’s faith:

“I’m ready to face what comes,” he said at the time. “Whether it’s a long time or a short time is all right with me because it’s up to my Lord and savior.”

In the ensuing months, in an emotional farewell ceremony at Comerica Park, in his columns for the Free Press and in interviews with national media, Harwell referred to death as his next great adventure, a gift handed down by God.

“I’ve had so many great ones,” he said. “It’s been a terrific life.”

But that’s it. The end. There’s no mention of Harwell’s conversion experience back in ’61. No discussion of the role faith played in his life. The only other reference to God is this quote from his final broadcast in 2002:

He wrapped up the address and 55 years as a major league broadcaster by saying, “I thank you very much, and God bless all of you.”

Interestingly enough, Harwell also said something else that day, but this didn’t make the story:

“Now, God has a new adventure for me, and I’m ready to move on.”

As part of its package on Harwell’s death, the Free Press makes other quick references (in columns by Albom and Rochelle Riley) to Harwell’s faith, but nothing substantial.

Meanwhile, let’s be blunt and say that The Detroit News missed the religion angle altogether, as best I can tell. As Harwell would put it, “They stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by.” Seriously, the News’ main obituary has more than 1,700 words — not a one of them “God,” “Jesus,” “Christian,” “faith” or “heaven.” We get tributes like this:

Upon learning of Harwell’s death, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch said:

“Ernie Harwell was the most popular sports figure in the state of Michigan. He was so genuine in everything that he did — from his legendary broadcasting to the way he treated the fans and everyone around him. He was truly a gentleman in every sense of the word. Ernie has a special place in the hearts of all Detroit Tigers’ fans and the memories he created for so many of us will never be forgotten.”

That’s wonderful. But was there something inside of Harwell that made him such a gentleman? Was there a reason he was so genuine? Could it — just possibly — have something to do with his faith?

By contrast, I was pleased to see ESPN highlight Harwell’s faith in a significant way.

In a video accompanying its obituary, ESPN notes that Harwell started each season by referencing a Bible verse — a passage from Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

ESPN includes an AP quote from Harwell on his faith in “God and Jesus” and links to a December 2009 feature on how Harwell’s spirituality provided peace as his friends and fans said goodbye. That feature ends this way:

“I have great faith that heaven’s there and I’ll see my brothers and my mom and dad when I get there,” Harwell says. “I think it’s better than here. I think God always has the best for us.

“I just have faith. It’s just there. It’s not any big deal.”

No, it’s a real big deal, an important part of who Harwell was. Coverage of his life — and death — should reflect that.

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Could’ve been so beautiful

Usually, I keep my compulsion for ’80s pop hits — the music of my youth — under control. This week, though, I’m in Philadelphia on a work-related trip, and my rental car — unlike my family’s minivan — has satellite radio. Satellite radio with an all-’80s station!

So, please blame Tiffany, but I can’t resist commenting on three recent stories with faith angles that could’ve been so beautiful, could’ve been so right — but stopped short of actually getting religion.

I Ran (So Far Away) from the spiritual lede: Last week, the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska ran a Page 1 trend story on a backlash against digital chatter. It opened this way:

Tom Murray is spending these days unplugged, in digital detox. He’s trying to distance himself from the virtual world and reconnect with the real one, where people talk face to face and don’t leap to answer every electronic chirp. You might say he has unfriended himself. “I gave up Facebook for Lent,” the Omahan said.

My first reaction: Giving up Facebook for Lent is so last year’s story. But religion news junkie that I am, I kept reading to find out more details about the spiritual aspects of this decision. However, there was no more mention of Lent — or anything religious — until the end:

After Lent is over, he plans to maintain a tight rein on his Facebooking, restricting himself to perhaps one log-in a day, in the evening.

“The philosophy of why I gave it up I don’t want to leave behind.”

Rock This Town with a gay-friendly prom: The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., featured a Page 1 story Thursday on the small Mississippi town that canceled its high school prom rather than let a lesbian student attend with her girlfriend.

In advance of a private prom planned for today, the reporter interviewed a variety of townsfolk about the controversy. This part grabbed me:

Linda Lindale, a local artist and born-again Christian, is disturbed by the reaction McMillen’s stance has provoked in some.

“Do I agree with that lifestyle?” she said, referring to McMillen’s homosexuality. “No, because I’m a blood-bought child of the King. But I’m not going to condemn her. It’s not our job to judge. We are taught (in the Bible) if we judge somebody, we will be judged by the same measure.”

Every story can’t be entirely about religion, and reporters deal with finite space. But wow, I’d love to know more about this woman’s religious background and beliefs. In a perfect world, I’d even welcome an explanation of born-again Christian.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, not go to church: If your musical tastes extend beyond the ’80s (or if you, like me, have kids who watch the Disney Channel), you may have heard of a teenage pop star named Miley Cyrus.

I bring this up because Parade had a fascinating interview with Cyrus that delved into her faith:

Miley’s ease with talking about God points to another aspect of her life — her faith. Before her family moved to L.A. in 2005, she was baptized in a Southern Baptist church as a kind of spiritual insurance policy against big-city life. Yet she no longer frequents church these days.

“My faith is very important to me,” she says. “But I don’t necessarily define my faith by going to church every Sunday. Because now when I go to church, I feel like it’s a show. There are always cameras outside. I am very spiritual in my own way. Let me make it clear, though — I am a Christian. Jesus is who saved me. He’s what keeps me full and whole. But everyone is entitled to what they believe and what keeps them full. Hopefully, I can influence people and help them follow the same path I am on, but it is not my job to tell people what they are doing wrong.”

Is it hard being openly Christian in Hollywood?

“People are always looking for you to do something that is non-Christian,” she answers. “But it’s like, ‘Dude, Christians don’t live in the dark.’ I have to participate in life. If I wear something revealing, they go, ‘Well, that’s not Christian.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go to hell because I’m wearing a pair of really short white shorts.’ Suddenly I’m a slut. That’s so old-school.”

Give the writer credit for asking about Cyrus’ faith and allowing her to express it in her own words. But there’s so much in that relatively short chunk of text that makes me wish for more. For starters, the reference to “a kind of spiritual insurance policy against big-city life” lacks clarity and raises more questions than it answers. Is that the writer’s cynical opinion? Is that how Cyrus viewed her baptism?

Moreover, Cyrus’ description of herself as “very spiritual in my own way” is interesting but so vague as to lack real meaning. I wish the reporter had pressed her more on what her spirituality entails.

And yes, I feel silly calling for a more substantive interview with Hannah Montana. But with more insight, this story could have mastered the best of both worlds (entertainment and religion).

If you’ll excuse me, Boy George, Prince and Madonna are calling my name.

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Shameless pre-Oscar plug for moi

Surely, I was one of the last pop-culture-friendly religion writers on planet earth to get around to writing about Avatar.

To be honest with you, I didn’t want to write about the movie — especially after I saw it. I thought it was simply another James Cameron passion play about the 1960s, full of digital spectacle and vague Oprah-esque spirituality. I couldn’t even get all that worked up about the offerings by the movie’s many conservative critics, other than Ross Douthat’s analysis in the New York Times.

As it turns out, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Avatar actually contains some very interesting and very specific religious content.

I was clubbed over the head by this fact during an interview with Dena Ross, the Beliefnet.com entertainment editor, while I was writing a column about the site’s annual Best Spiritual Film award. As it turns out, I had missed a major concept from Hinduism during my graduate-school classes about world religions long, long ago (in a universe far, far away).

To cut to the chase, I didn’t know what the word “avatar” actually meant (other than its modern application in digital gaming). It appears that I am not alone. Anyway, that led to a Scripps Howard News Service column that opened like this:

In one of Hinduism’s most sacred poems, the lord and sustainer of the universe chooses to be incarnated in human form — the ancient term is “avatar” — to help the Pandava people fight evil invaders and defend what is right.

In director James Cameron’s blockbuster “Avatar,” a U.S. Marine is transformed by technology into a blue-skinned warrior on a planet called Pandora, where he helps the Na’vi people fight evil invaders and defend their sacred lands and traditions.

There seem to be some similarities in these epics.

“The ancient Hindu scriptures have forever reiterated that whenever the world would be on the brink of disaster and mankind faces extinction … the divine Lord Vishnu would manifest himself in mortal, palpable form to save mankind from the impending doomsday,” noted the Bengali director Sudipto Chattopadhyay, at the Passion and Cinema weblog.

When evaluating Cameron’s movie, he added, one thing is clear. “The use of the word Avatar hence could never be an accident. The Avatar is meant to be the savior, the messiah of his own race and people.”

Obviously, I had a blind spot when — notebook in hand — I went to the theater to see this megahit movie. Ross (and Google) helped me realize my limitations and learn something new about an important concept.

By the way, I urge you to check out that Chattopadhyay essay. To me, it seems highly unlikely that Cameron was simply dabbling in some vague symbolism when he was making this movie.

All in all, this has to be considered an unusually faith-based year at the multiplex. This week, the Religion & Ethics Weekly team at PBS did a discussion-starter piece — click here for the page with two videos — on this topic for the show’s website. The producer for the segment saw my Scripps Howard piece and I ended up being part of the trio of voices featured in the pre-Oscar discussion.

So check that out. Then, let’s open this thread up, in the final hours before the red carpet. Any comments on the role of religion and spirituality in the important films this year? Any comments on the press coverage of these themes? Please share some URLs with us.

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Someone saved my soul tonight

17th Annual World Team Tennis Smash Hits

Pop star Elton John is featured on the cover of Parade magazine this week. So I guess Parade is still around. He’s ostensibly on the cover to talk about how he’s a better person now than he was before. But he makes news for an unconventional religious idea he puts forth.

Many news outlets, including USA Today and the Washington Post have quoted or otherwise given the interview coverage.

Soraya Roberts at the Daily News writes it up as follows:

Elton John has never been a big fan of religion.

“Religion promotes hatred and spite against gays,” the openly gay performer told the Observer’s Music Monthly magazine in 2006. “From my point of view, I would ban religion completely.”

So it comes as a surprise that in Parade magazine this week, John claims that one of the central figures of Christianity is in fact a homosexual.

“I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems,” he tells Parade. “On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him.”

It’s a perfectly fine write-up and the interview certainly is newsworthy. But is Jesus Christ really best described as “one of the central figures of Christianity”?

Observers have long noted how statements or images viewed as blasphemous by Muslims tend to receive less media coverage and receive a much stronger reaction than blasphemous statements about Christianity.

There’s no doubt that Sir Elton John’s views are considered blasphemous by most Christians. I’m sure that Christians won’t respond by rioting or anything, but that doesn’t mean that the media should treat the offending statement cavalierly.

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‘Lifies’ and the Haggard saga

Gayle Haggard, the loyal wife of fallen evangelical mega-pastor Ted Haggard, was all over the mainstream media world (Oprah, “Today,” etc.) last week promoting her new book: “Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made in My Darkest Hour.”

With this book blitz, reporting on the Ted Haggard story has now officially moved from Chapter 1 in the Media Playbook (Hard news: Scandal) to Chapter 3 (Features: “Lifie”) without going through Chapter 2 (Analysis: What the heck is really going on here?). Readers would have benefited from deeper questioning.

Ted Haggard finally admitted his sins in November 2006 and was subsequently fired from the Colorado Springs megachurch he founded. He resurfaced in January 2009 when HBO broadcast Alexandra Pelosi’s gripping documentary, “The Trials of Ted Haggard” and he and Gayle appeared on Oprah’s show.

Late last year he started a new church down the road from his old congregation. At that point, some reporters (including local religion reported Mark Barna at The Gazette) did good analysis pieces that raised questions about Haggard’s suitability to lead.

All those questions have been forgotten in the wake of Gayle’s successful p.r. campaign (which was orchestrated by Tyndale, the Wheaton, Illinois-based evangelical publisher that learned a few things about big-league promotion with the Left Behind novels). Marcia Z. Nelson of Publishers Weekly’s Religion BookLine reports that Tyndale has already gone back to press after selling out a first printing of 75,000 copies.

The Haggard story has now evolved into the type of media events Neal Gabler called “lifies,” which are celebrity-driven, media-friendly stories about failure and redemption that serve up big, gooey life lessons for viewers.

Gayle Haggard presents readers and viewers with a powerful message of marital love, personal loyalty and Christian forgiveness, and I was particularly impressed by her interview with Meredith Vieira on “Today” and the piece by Adelle banks of Religion News Service.

But as the Haggards seek to find a new life and calling for themselves, important questions remain:
- Can we believe Ted when he says, as he did on Oprah last week, that after therapy, he has not had “one compulsive thought or behavior”?
- Even if that is true, is Ted now in a position to once again assume the mantle of pastoral leadership?
- Gayle Haggard has certainly suffered enough already, and her husband’s sins do not necessarily bar her from leadership. But is the “evangelical industrial complex” helping to return the couple to a form of shared leadership by publishing and promoting Gayle’s book?

Gabler’s “Life: The Movie” argues that entertainment has conquered reality. The Haggard saga, at least as it is currently being covered, is the latest in a long list of stories about tarnished evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal leaders that demonstrates the truth of Gabler’s argument in religious circles.

Despite their frequent and often angry protests against pop culture, many Christians reveal that they are all too willing to submit to the marketplace–not any ecclesiastical authority–as the ultimate arbiter of who qualifies as a leader.

This isn’t the last we will hear from the Haggards. Perhaps next time around enterprising reporters will ask some of the tough questions about leadership and authority that have been lost in in the “lifies.”

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Agassi’s days of “atonement”

open_coverWe all know the celebrity book tour drill. Suddenly, a superstar is assaulting us from all imaginable media outlets with a gripping saga of failure and redemption that is, of course, told in much greater detail in a new book, which goes on sale tomorrow!

That’s what I initially suspected tennis star Andre Agassi was up to when he was everywhere doing interviews about his new book, “Open,” which describes his former hatred for the sport that made him famous, drug use, bad hair days, and other torments.

But about halfway through his two-part Nov. 8 “60 Minutes” interview, I began to feel that Agassi, unlike other celebs, was not seeking to burnish his public image but was participating in its death and destruction, horrific detail by detail.

In “Andre Agassi’s ‘Atonement,’” a Q&A with the Wall Street Journal’s Jim Chairusmi, the eight-time Grand Slam title winner explained his motives for doing the book (written with J.R. Moehringer, author of the moving memoir, The Tender Bar), even though it would have been easier not to:

I think one is always tempted to take the easy road and I certainly understood the cost that this would come with because I understood my process. I knew I couldn’t just go halfway up this road. But anything worthwhile in life comes with work and risk. This was part atonement, as well. I had something that most people don’t get, which is a second chance at my life. Everyday has been a form of atonement. And this book is that.

I had a lot more to lose than to gain, but if it could help people–and I believe it gives tools and inspiration to real issues that all of us feel. There’s not a person out there that doesn’t know what it’s like to be in a situation that, at times, they don’t recognize.

The atonement theme also appeared in articles by the Associated Press (available at espn.com and elsewhere) and on CNN.com (which labeled its “atonement” story an exclusive).

There are some people who love it when religious concepts like atonement, redemption and transcendence are dispersed throughout our popular culture like the wind of the Spirit. But others experience a sensation of possessiveness and discomfort when these powerful words become unmoored from their grounding in theology.

But I think all journalists could agree on one thing. A celebrity’s pronouncement that his public confessions equal atonement doesn’t mean we cant ask follow-up questions like:
- What does atonement mean to you?
- Does any particular religious tradition or training inform your view of atonement?
- Is atonement the same thing as forgiveness?
- And do you still struggle with the personal and social consequences of your behavior?

I, for one, believe Agassi is seeking some form of atonement. But just because he (or some other celebrity) makes such a claim doesn’t mean that journalists need to suddenlybecome reverential or passive. Instead, such claims call for more and deeper questions.

Agassi has been inviting the world into his soul. But most readers and viewers were left wondering what was really going on in there. If journalists had responded by going deeper with Agassi, the rest of us would have gained a better understanding of this complex man’s troubled inner life.

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